Freedom From Evil Spirits – Released from Fear, Addiction & The Devil
Fr Pat Collins CM (Columba Books, €12.99)
Chapter Twenty-One: Overcoming Temptation
The temptation to sin is a characteristic of every human life. In Genesis we are told how Adam and Eve were tempted by the devil in the Garden of Eden. Even Jesus, the Son of God, experienced such temptation in the wilderness (cf. Lk 4:1–13; Mt 4:1–11). Speaking about the three temptations of Jesus in the course of a general audience on the 22nd February 2012, Pope Benedict XVI said that Satan sought to draw Jesus from being a messiah of self-sacrifice to a messiah of power. During his period in the wilderness Jesus was exposed to danger and was assaulted by temptations which were far from God’s plan because they involved power, success and domination rather than the total gift of self on the Cross. Heb 4:15, summed up the situation when it said, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.”
The English words tempt and temptation are derived from Latin and mean “to test” or “to try the strength of something”. Theology says that while God may test a person’s fidelity by allowing him or her to endure all kinds of trials, tribulations and temptations, God never does the tempting. As Scripture says, “No one when tempted should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’, for God cannot be tempted by evil, and God tempts no one” (Jm 1:13).
Temptation can have two main sources:
Firstly, there are our own sinful desires. St James says, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jm 1:14). In De Diabolo Tentaton, Homil. II, 1, St John Chrysostom wrote, “It is not the devil but people’s own carelessness which causes all their falls and all the ills about which they complain.”
Secondly, the devil can tempt us. In Rev 12:17 we read that the evil one, “went off to make war on the rest of her (Mary’s) offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” In his Summa Theologiae, St Thomas Aquinas says that the proper role of the devil is to tempt.
How to resist temptation
St Paul said in a reassuring way, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). I think we would have to say that this promise presupposes that the person being tempted is mature, self-aware, and utterly reliant on God. Because that isn’t always the case, many people, despite their good intentions, do give in to temptation. The evil they wish to avoid is the very thing they do (cf. Rm 7:19).
There is an interesting example of this paradox in the gospels. St Peter loved Jesus. He promised to go to Jerusalem with him, and if necessary, to die with him. But Jesus knew his friend through and through. He responded, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has sought permission to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:31-33). Jesus knew that despite Peter’s good intentions, Satan would exploit his weaknesses during passion week. Surprisingly, he didn’t pray that Peter would overcome temptation. He knew that a fall was inevitable because the spiritual life of Peter was built on the sand of presumption and a lack of humble self-awareness. So he prayed instead, that when Peter had fallen, he would not be filled with such despairing self-contempt that like Judas, he would be so disillusioned that he would doubt the mercy and love of Jesus. In fact, Peter’s fall not only taught him a lot about himself and his weakness but also about the power and tactics of the evil one, who, as he testified, “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pt 5:8). But he also learned that his betrayal of Jesus turned out to be a “happy fault” insofar as it evoked in him a heartfelt desire for the promised Holy Spirit, which filled him and the other apostles on Pentecost Sunday when God’s power was made perfect in their weakness (cf. 2 Cor 12:9). No wonder Paul said in Rm 5:20, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”
In 2 Cor 11:14, St Paul warned us that, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” What he meant by this is that in the case of good people, the devil doesn’t try to get them to commit serious sin because he knows his temptations would be in vain. What he does instead is that he tempts them with what is good in order to seduce them away from what is better. When St Ignatius of Loyola was studying in Barcelona, he found that his attention was being distracted by all kinds of spiritual insights. Eventually, he realised that the devil was using them in order to deflect him from his providential calling. As a result, St Ignatius wrote, “It is characteristic of the evil angel, who takes on the appearance of an angel of light, to enter by going along the same way as the devout soul and then to exit by his own way with success for himself. That is, he brings good and holy thoughts attractive to such an upright soul and then strives little by little to get his own way, by enticing the soul over to his own hidden deceits and evil intentions.” In our times the devil often gets people to focus in a compassionate way on the satisfaction of pressing needs in order to distract them from urgent priorities such as prayer, spending time with one’s family or engaging in evangelisation. So discernment is needed, because all that glitters is not necessarily gold.
St Ignatius also believed that the devil tries to separate people from the Lord by tempting them to have an inordinate and idolatrous “love for money, a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim 6:10). Then, the person becomes preoccupied with a desire for a good reputation, status, honours and influence. That leads to a desire for ethical independence. It is at this stage that relativistic and subjective views of right and wrong begin to predominate as the person engages in activities that are seriously sinful in God’s eyes (cf. Ps 51:4) if not their own. In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius said that in order to resist diabolical temptation, a believer needs to be familiar with the typical tactics of the Devil. He likes to operate as a bully who intimidates, a seducer who fosters secrecy, and as a military commander who exploits a person’s principal vulnerability.
A] The bully who intimidates
The devil comes on strong during temptation. He tries to intimidate us in order to produce a resigned defeatism in the heart. The weaker the person appears to be, the more the devil will try to bully him or her by piling on the pressure. But if, from the onset of the temptation, the person is firm and courageous in resisting his temptations, the devil is exposed as a coward. St Ignatius wrote, “it is the custom of the enemy to become weak, lose courage and turn to flight with his seductions as soon as one leading his or her spiritual life faces temptations boldly, and does exactly the opposite of what the enemy suggests. However, if one begins to be afraid and to lose courage in temptations, no wild animal on earth can be more fierce than the enemy of our human nature.” This advice is particularly relevant during times of desolation, when the inner sense of God’s presence can be eclipsed and we are troubled by feelings like restlessness, aridity, sadness and hopelessness. It is just when we arrive at our lowest ebb that the enemy will attack. It is then, too, that we need to recall that “the spirit you received is not a spirit of cowardice but rather the spirit of power and self-control” so “resist the devil and he will flee from you” (2 Tim 1:7; Jm 4:7). The great spiritual writers counsel that it is important to resist temptation as soon as it begins. Thomas à Kempis wrote in The Imitation of Christ, “We must be watchful, especially in the beginning of temptation, because it is then that the enemy is more easily overcome if he is not allowed to come in through the door of the soul, but instead is kept out and resisted from the first knock… Withstand at the beginning, remedies afterwards come too late.”
B] The seducer who likes secrecy
The evil one prefers to work in secret. Like a married man who has seduced a young woman, or visa versa, he will urge the person he tempts not to tell confessors, friends or confidants about his temptations. He will suggest that this is the best policy either because they wouldn’t understand, or because they would be too harsh, too busy, or too lax. And he knows, says Ignatius, that “he cannot succeed in his evil undertaking once its obvious deceptions have been revealed… But if one reveals them to a good confessor or a spiritual person with knowledge of such deceits and malicious intentions, the evil one would be quite vexed, knowing that it cannot succeed in this evil undertaking once its obvious deceptions have been revealed.” And so in a time of temptation, it is a prudent thing to reveal one’s struggle, no matter how shameful or embarrassing it might be, to a person who is experienced in the area of discernment of spirits. St Vincent De Paul once wrote, “if anyone feels troubled by ideas which seem to be in some way misleading, are upset by acute anxiety or temptation, he should tell a spiritually experienced person, such as a spiritual director, so that the matter can be competently dealt with.”
C] The military commander who exploits weakness
The devil is like a good military commander. He exploits a person’s greatest vulnerability, especially during times of desolation. The enemy of our human nature, says Ignatius, “explores from every side all our virtues of intellect, faith and morals. Where he finds our defence is weakest and most deficient in regard to eternal salvation, it is at that point that the enemy attacks, trying to overcome us.” Psychologists have suggested that each personality type has a characteristic weakness. For example, those with a sanguine temperament are inclined to sensuality; those with a melancholic temperament incline to sadness and depression; those with a choleric temperament incline to anger and insensitivity; and those with a phlegmatic temperament incline to apathy and laziness. Devotees of the controversial Enneagram maintain that there are nine personality types. Each one is said to have a characteristic blind spot or obsession, e.g. an inordinate desire to avoid anger, pain, a sense of need, failure, ordinariness, emptiness, non-conformity, vulnerability and conflict. Mature Christians need the kind of self-awareness that recognises where God’s protection is most needed. Otherwise they will be caught unawares. Afterwards they may confess in dismay, “I didn’t know what came over me, it wasn’t like me to do something like that.” As St Paul admitted, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Rm 7:19). Once we grow in self-knowledge, however, we will be aware from personal experience which occasion of sin we most need to prayerfully avoid. As Jesus said to the apostles in Gethsemane, “Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” (Mt 26:41).
Self-denial and temptation
Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mt 16:24). We can curb and counteract the selfish, self-indulgent inclinations of our nature, by engaging in such things as voluntary fasting and almsgiving. We can also renounce satisfactions, sensual, imaginative and intellectual, which may not be sinful in themselves. In this way the spiritual self is strengthened. Then, when temptation comes, we are better able to resist it, with the help of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said to the apostles when they asked him why they had been unable to overcome the influence of the evil one who was oppressing a boy, he said, “this kind can only be overcome through prayer and fasting,” i.e. by acts of self-denial (Mk 9:29). At the end of a talk on confronting the power of the devil, in 1972, Pope Paul VI said, “The Christian must be a militant; he must be vigilant and strong; and he must at times make use of special ascetical practices to escape from certain diabolical attacks. Jesus teaches us this by pointing to ‘prayer and fasting’ as the remedy. And the Apostle suggests the main line we should follow: ‘Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’.”
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